Have you ever tried to eat ice cream with a fork? Copywriting for the Web

cartoon in which character gets distracted while surfing the Web

Writing comes in many forms and styles. When eating, we find it easier to use the right utensil for the food in front of us. In the case of ice cream, most of us would prefer a spoon to a fork. When it comes to the Web, we're given a variety of opinions as to what is the correct form or style.

Web copywriting myths aren't consistent:
  • Web readers have short attention spans. Give them short paragraphs with bullet points, so they don't have to read.
  • Long form marketing copy sells. Write long descriptive pages emphasizing features and benefits, continuously repeating your call to action while hinting at the wonders that await.

There's a kernel of truth in each of these philosophies. But in the end, a copywriter's job is to communicate, in as many—or as few—words as it takes to convey the message to our readers. In my mind there isn't a style specific to the Web. It's not a matter of choosing the fish fork for a brochure and the snail tongs for Web copy. Instead it's a matter of tailoring your copy to your particular communications goal and your intended reading audience.

While I've written several articles about writing on this blog, this one is meant to be more of a general overview of my writing philosophy. At the end I've also included links to more detailed entries on this subject.

Sales Copy

Whether we're trying to sell handmade jewelry, promote an event, entice students to apply to our degree program or generate sales leads, we're asking our readers to make a decision. My goal in writing sales copy is to help them make that decision (to buy) more easily. A simple—jargon free—product description, coupled with a list of features and benefits lays the foundation.

The description tells them that our offering may be the right solution for their needs. The features and benefits explain how and why it can solve their problem so they can determine if it is the best solution for them. If a product or service is complex, we can then link to additional information such as fact sheets, product specifications, case studies and testimonials that demonstrate both how the product or service works, and how it has worked for others.

An educated consumer is a happy consumer. When we give our customers the facts they need to make an informed purchasing decision, we give them the tools they need to make that decision now—without hemming and hawing while wondering if our wondrous widget is right for them. Naturally your product or service must live up to expectations, but if your copy helps customers buy with confidence, you can reduce the possibility of buyer's remorse while paving the way to customer satisfaction. Satisfied customers are repeat customers. They're the one's who'll keep your business running, from now into the future.

Bill is braising shrimp.

shrimp with rice
Buy our product. Save time. Eat well.

Just because our copy is informative, doesn't mean we don't have room for creativity. "Bill is braising shrimp" is the headline I used in an ad for a law book. It was part of a series of ads promoting the time-saving features of the product line. Bill had time to cook a nice dinner for his friends because our book gave him the information he needed more quickly, so he didn't have to spend his evening in the law library.

There's a story to tell behind each of our product's features or benefits. We can use such stories to lend a snappy headline and explain, in human terms, how our offering can benefit customers in ways they will easily recognize.

Informational & Educational Copy

Clarity is as key to sharing knowledge as it is to selling products. Many organizations use knowledge sharing content in support of their sales and customer service efforts. Others may use it to provide an educational service. In either scenario, the goal is to educate readers in a way that will let them apply this knowledge to their own lives.

When writing informational copy, I try to think of myself as a teacher whose students may come from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels. If I want to teach them how to do X, or help them understand how Y works, I start with the basics. As with sales copy, there may be an opportunity to tell a story, or use an example that will resonate with readers. But to start, I'll begin with a simple premise, then walk readers through the process step-by-step. I want to provide enough details to be thorough. And I want to use language that is precise but easily understood.

I harp on language, because it can so often befuddle. If I start telling you "how to maximize your ROI using on-site SEO to leverage combinatorial search algorithms", it's going to sound like a bunch of business-speak gibberish. It will make you have to work harder to understand my meaning, while making me look like a pretentious fool who may be using buzzwords as a substitute for real knowledge and experience. If my goal is to share knowledge, then I want to package that knowledge in words and sentences that you will quickly and easily understand.

Whether you're explaining to children that the earth revolves around the sun, or teaching your customers how to install additional RAM on their computer, you want to keep it simple enough to follow, and thorough enough to be complete. If we do this properly our readers may take it for granted that our copy made sense. That's O. K. Our goal is not to impress them with the effort it took to write, our goal is to communicate. If our readers can leave our page, having grasped the knowledge we intended to share, we've done our job.

Writing to connect with readers

If you're reading this, you've probably visited many a Web site over the years. You've encountered sites that compelled you to buy a widget and tell all of your friends about your great experience. And you've visited sites that sent you awaymuttering in frustration as you wondered what rabid badger was hired to write such drivel. In either case you know what works and what doesn't. If you have a story about a Web site that either succeeded or failedin connecting with you as a readerplease feel free to share it in the comments.

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13 Comments »
  1. Twitter Comment... Heidi Adams Cool - Have you ever tried to eat ice cream with a fork? Copywriting for the Web [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by schools4me (schools4me) — July 22, 2009 @7:07 pm

  2. Interesting. I try to write clearly, but equally I try to write to match who I think my audience is. A piece of advice I might give myself is to have a clear picture of my audience. My picture may be wrong but without it I won't know how set the tone of my writing or know what need not be said.

    Comment by David — July 22, 2009 @7:47 pm

  3. As a new blogger, I found this (and your related articles) very insightful! Thanks!!!

    Comment by Tonya — July 22, 2009 @7:51 pm

  4. Twitter Comment... RT @TeachingPassion:Have you ever tried to eat ice cream w/ a fork? Copywriting for the Web: Writing comes in many forms [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by LiteracyCounts (EarlyChildhoodEd) — July 22, 2009 @7:53 pm

  5. David,
    That's a great technique. If you can imagine who you are communicating with, it would be easier to set the appropriate tone, mood, vocabulary, etc. I think it also helps psychologically. If it feels like you are writing to a real human, the process becomes more personal and down to earth. Writing then becomes part of a conversation instead of a one-sided announcement.

    Ford is doing something similar with car design. They create a virtual personality to represent a customer and design to that "person's" needs. This let's the designers focus on what the typical purchaser will want as opposed to what the designer would want for him/herself.

    Tonya
    I'm glad you found this helpful. Though after looking at your blog, it's pretty obvious that you already get it. I'd have thought you were a long-time blogging pro if you hadn't mentioned that you were just getting started. Best wishes to you and the childhood literacy blog, I expect we'll see plenty more great thoughts from you in the future. By the way I blog in my head as well. There are far more entries swirling about the cobwebs of my brain then ever make it through the keyboard and onto the Web!

    Comment by Heidi — July 22, 2009 @8:24 pm

  6. Twitter Comment... Heidi Adams Cool - Have you ever tried to eat ice cream with a fork? Copywriting for the Web: Writing comes in many form [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by TeachingPassion (TeachingPassion) — July 22, 2009 @8:33 pm

  7. Thanks for the support Heidi! That is good to hear from a pro like you! I've added your blogs to my favs so hopefully there will be many more comments to come.

    Comment by Tonya — July 23, 2009 @5:19 pm

  8. Terrific insights, Heidi. There's a story to tell behind each of our product's features or benefits. Absolutely. As writers - whether we're writing for the web, for print, for video, for any medium -- we need to investigate to find the story. "Telling the story" has become trite and cliche in recent years, but that's what good copy writing boils down to: Tell me a story. Shame on us writers who get lazy and fail to dig up the story behind our products (or services).

    Comment by Andrew Careaga — July 23, 2009 @8:40 pm

  9. Thanks Andrew!
    I think it is easy to become lazy and to just think of products or services as entities we merely describe. But whether we're promoting books, bandages or a Ph.D. program in marine biology, there is some story available. Sometimes it just takes some thought. But if we think about why the product or service exists in the first place we're reminded that it was created for a reason. Someone invented a better bandage to tend a certain type of wound. Someone endowed the marine biology program because they felt such research was important to the environment, to understanding evolution, to learning things from the genetics of zebra fish that we might apply to human health, or whatever. There are thousands of untold tales. We just need to start telling them.

    Comment by Heidi — July 24, 2009 @4:58 am

  10. I hired a professional writer - finally! to help with my copy - he sat down with me and taught me much about writing in active voice, cadence and agreements - I highly recommend it - I thought my copy was decent - hopefully better now!

    Comment by Greg Bowen — July 25, 2009 @5:33 pm

  11. Greg, that's great that you were able to work with a professional writer, especially that he was able to give you some good tips that you can apply to future projects. No matter how well we write I think we all have room for improvement. As with any skill, there is always something new to learn. And, even the best writers need editors. A fresh pair of eyes is always good at catching nuances that we may miss if we've been working on something too long. Best wishes to you and your site.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — July 28, 2009 @11:05 pm

  12. [...] Copywriting for the web is Heidi Cool’s excellent post on writing for any medium. Trite as it has become to claim that marketing is all about “telling the story,” Heidi reminds us of the truth of that saying: There’s a story to tell behind each of our product’s features or benefits. We can use such stories to lend a snappy headline and explain, in human terms, how our offering can benefit customers in ways they will easily recognize. [...]

    Pingback by higher ed marketing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: on writing well* — February 9, 2010 @8:10 am

  13. Copywriting is also a skill that takes years of practice to become very effective in advertising what you are selling and *'"

    Comment by Aiden Thompson — May 6, 2010 @8:23 pm

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